During her long struggle against Burma's generals, pro-democracy
icon Aung San Suu Kyi has leaned heavily on her Buddhist faith. She has
extolled the religion for allowing her a sense of inner freedom during her 15
years of house arrest, and said that Buddhist precepts such as "loving kindness" can guide Burma's
democratic transition, fostering reconciliation with the military, instead of anger
and revenge. Burma's pious have returned the cultural compliment, so to speak.
Many of them see Suu Kyi as a near-bodhisattva,
whose enlightened work and suffering on behalf of others deserves the utmost
But the more nationalistic face of this Buddhist tradition,
brought into focus by recent violence directed against Rohingya
Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, could yet derail Suu Kyi's attempts to
forge a more democratic, inclusive government and to transcend the country's
long history of bloody ethnic rivalries.
Suu Kyi has a Buddhism problem. Specifically, she faces an
obstacle in the chauvinism and xenophobia of Burma's Theravada culture, which
encourages a sense of racial and religious superiority among majority Burman
Buddhists at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities. Although
the world has been largely focused on the drama between Burma's military
leaders and "The Lady," fraught relations between ethnic Burmans, who make up
60 percent of the country's population, and the non-Burman minorities, who make
up the remaining 40 percent, could leave the country politically fragmented --
and strengthen the military's hand just as it has been forced to loosen its
This is why Derek Mitchell, the first U.S. ambassador to Burma
in 22 years, was right to
call the fate of the ethnic nationalities issue the country's "defining
It's also why this issue should be on the top of the agenda this week, when
Suu Kyi comes to Washington to pick up a
Congressional Gold Medal and meet once again with Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, who visited her in Yangon in December 2011. So far, Suu Kyi's response
to the Rohingya issue has lacked the boldness she's shown on other national
violence in June, some of it committed by Buddhist mobs and some by
Buddhist-dominated security forces, led to scores of deaths, the burning of
settlements and a refugee exodus of 90,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh.
There, up to 300,000 Rohingya refugees still languish in makeshift camps from
the last anti-Rohingya pogrom 20 years ago -- part of what the United
Nations calls "one of the world's largest
and most prominent group of stateless people." The most recent influx prompted Bangladesh
to any more Rohingyas, and in early
international NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders from providing any more aid,
which these groups have been doing since the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported in late
July that the
Rohingya who remained in Rakhine, where the government imposed
a state of emergency in June, were subject to arbitrary mass arrests, as well as
abuse in custody. A U.N. special rapporteur echoed
that finding, citing "serious violations of human rights committed as part of
measures to restore law and order."
According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas, who number about
800,000, are one of the world's most persecuted minorities -- subject to forced
labor, extortion, police harassment, movement restrictions, land confiscation,
a de facto "one child" policy, and limited access to jobs, education, and
healthcare. A 1982 law denies them citizenship based on the presumption that
they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in
Burma for generations. There's also their darker skin color, which makes them "ugly as ogres" by comparison to
the "fair and soft" complexion of Burmans, as a Burmese consul stated in 2009.
In 1978 and again in 1991, the military conducted what human
rights activists call ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya, which
resulted in huge refugee flows into Bangladesh. Responding to this latest round
of anti-Rohingya aggression, Burmese President Thein Sein said
that the solution to the Rohingya problem was to put them into
U.N.-administered internal camps, or expel them to any country "willing
to accept them."
The Rohingyas aren't alone in their persecution by the Burman
majority -- other minorities have been put-upon by Buddhist nationalism too.
This mindset tends to view minorities as threats to "the land, the race, and
the religion," as infamous government propaganda billboards phrase it, and
seeks to "Burmanize" them by depriving
them of linguistic, cultural, and religious rights. Human rights abuses -- even
ethnic cleansing and systematic rape -- are seen as the price of national
solidarity. Many of these minority groups, such as the Karen, the Shan, the
Mon, and the Kachin, have been in a state of sporadic rebellion against the
central government since Burma gained independence in 1948, making the Union of
Myanmar, as Burma is officially called, quite a notional one.
Buddhism has played a key rule in undermining the military's grip on power.
Monastic opposition to the regime, which boiled over in the 2007 "Saffron
Revolution," posed a significant challenge to the military's popular legitimacy
by depicting it as an enemy of Buddha sasana,
or righteous moral rule. This is an all-important concept with both spiritual
and political resonance rooted in ancient Buddhist scripture, roughly akin to
the classical Chinese notion of the "mandate of heaven."
To deflect that challenge, the regime has played the Burman
"race card," largely through propaganda stressing that Buddhism is the religion
of "true Burmese," and that the health and purity of a uniquely Burman form of
Buddhism are at risk from "outside" contamination.
Although this strategy wasn't
successful enough to fend off assaults on the military's legitimacy, it was effective
at feeding Buddhist chauvinism and insecurity. The result has been a rising
tide of nationalism in which the Buddhist majority might rally behind Suu Kyi
and her monastic allies for greater
democratic rights -- but still sees other groups in a subordinate and often
As the violence against the Rohingyas played out, the newly
"liberated" Internet lit up with racist invective. Using a pejorative for the
darker-skinned Muslims, one commenter declared, "We should kill
all the Kalars [a
derogatory word meaning "black"] in Burma or banish them, otherwise
Buddhism will cease to exist." Meanwhile, monks in Rakhine state distributed
pamphlets urging Buddhists not to associate
with Rohingyas. Some Buddhist religious groups were also reported to have interfered
with the delivery of humanitarian aid to the areas affected by the recent
violence. An expat English teacher in Rangoon said in an email that among most
Buddhists, even in the educated classes, "There is fairly uniform xenophobia on
the [Rohingya] issue and it won't change soon."
This seems to be true of Burma's pro-democracy community as
well, including leading figures in Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy
(NLD). Ko Ko Gyi,
who was imprisoned for his role in the 1988 student uprising and now functions
as a mentor to younger democracy activists through his leadership in the 88 Generation
Students group, described
the Rohingya as "terrorists" who infringed on the country's
sovereignty. Like other
pro-democracy figures, Ko Ko Gyi denied that the Rohingya should be counted
among the nation's 135 recognized "national groups" and said that "the root
cause of the violence comes from across the border," meaning Bangladesh. NLD
spokesman Nyan Win simply said:
"The Rohingya are not our citizens."
Suu Kyi has reacted like a deer caught in the headlights when
confronted with the Rohingya issue. While in
Europe in June to receive her belated Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked if the
Rohingya should be treated as citizens. "I
do not know," she answered, then launched into an equivocating, convoluted
statement about citizenship laws and the need for border vigilance, implying that she shared the
view that the Rohingya issue was at bottom a problem of illegal immigration. At
no point did she or the NLD denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol
that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims.
The pinched response left many Burma watchers disappointed. Journalist
Francis Wade wondered
whether Western observers have "over-romanticized" the struggle between the NLD
and the junta, and if the pro-democracy movement ever had the "wholesale
commitment to the principle of tolerance" many presumed.
Maung Zarni, a Burmese research fellow at the London School of
Economics, said that Suu Kyi's reticence was likely a matter of political pragmatism. "Politically,
Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on
this," he told
Press. "She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her
principles. She's a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is
the 2015 majority Buddhist vote."
Already, President Thein Sein's proposal to either expel the
Rohingya or put them in concentration camps has enhanced his popularity as a defender
of the Buddhist faith, with hundreds of monks taking
to the streets in Yangon and Mandalay for
several days the first week in September to show monastic support. Such support
for Thein Sein, who could be Suu Kyi's rival in the 2015 elections, is a jarring
contrast to their pro-democracy activism in the past -- and a reminder of
Burma's fast-changing political balance. In this struggle, Buddhist sentiment is
a particularly unpredictable variable.
Whatever her calculations, Suu Kyi's lack of expressed concern
for the Rohingya could only have confirmed other nationalities' longstanding
suspicion that the NLD is the party of the Burmans. This is particularly true
for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which is currently involved in
all-out combat against the Burmese military near the Chinese border. Confronted
in London on
her European tour in June with questions about why she had not
condemned the military's human rights abuses against the predominately
Christian Kachin, Suu Kyi grew
peeved and gave a vague answer. "Resolving conflict is not about condemnation; it is
about finding out the root, the cause of the conflict, " she said.
not giving her direct and undue support to the Kachin people, Suu Kyi is only
radicalizing the Kachin to feel there is no use working with the Burman people,"
Ko Nawang, a Kachin activist, responded.
Since returning home, Suu Kyi has established minority rights as
a priority, citing it in her first statement in Parliament. However, she said nothing specific
about the Rohingya in her speech.
Threading the needle on Buddhist nationalism represents a far
more complicated challenge than anything that Suu Kyi has faced so far. The
issue has wounded Burma in the past: Minority unrest in 1962, significantly provoked
by the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion, provided a
pretext for a coup staged by Gen. Ne Win. The military takeover led to a
half-century of isolation, which the country is only now shedding. If ethnic and religious tensions boil
over this time around, Burma could fragment a la Yugoslavia at the end of the
Cold War. The specter of disorder,
which the military has long invoked to justify its heavy hand, might lead it to
slow the pace of reform, halt it altogether, or even roll back reforms.
In trying to forge an inclusive sense of national identity in a country
that has never known one, the politics of Buddhist nationalism will restrict Suu
Kyi's political options as she pursues political reform. And she herself may suspect that the obduracy of the country's
Buddhist culture is not something that encourages democracy or tolerance. For the
Burmese "racial psyche," she wrote in a 1985 academic monograph, Buddhism
"represents the perfected philosophy. It therefore follows that there [is] no
need to either to develop it further or to consider other philosophies."
Democratic progress in Burma will, of course, be a matter of
politics. But in Burma's complicated political calculus, culture matters.
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